'Our Pain is Not An Asset': Inside the Breakdown of the Wall of Moms

Illustration for article titled Our Pain is Not An Asset: Inside the Breakdown of the Wall of Moms
Image: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, Portland’s leading anti-police violence and Black-led organization Don’t Shoot Portland posted a message on their Instagram account, documenting a break with the Wall of Moms, a loose grouping of largely white women that had formed in response to the Trump administration’s sending of federal law enforcement agents to the city and the violence directed against Black Lives Matter protesters. The Wall of Moms had begun as an effort to use their bodies as a physical barrier between protesters and federal agents, using their status as so-called “Target moms” to both protect protesters and proclaim that white mothers believed that Black lives matter. After the first night, they kept going and growing, transforming from a one-off Facebook event into something that could be called an organization. In the two weeks since they first linked arms and sang lullabies at protests, the moms in yellow t-shirts and gas masks had gained so much attention, most of it glowing, that they had inspired similar groups to organize in other cities.

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But as Don’t Shoot Portland put it in their Instagram post, they no longer trusted the leadership of Wall of Moms, in particular its founder Bev Barnum. 
“The lies are finally clear and we are sad but ultimately not surprised that anti-Blackness showed it’s [sic] ugly face with Wall of Moms,” the group wrote in the caption, and they urged their followers to no longer support Wall of Moms under Barnum’s leadership. “We need everyone to show up against racism, but it’s even more crucial to prioritize transparency and accountability,” Don’t Shoot Portland wrote, adding, “WE ARE NOT AGAINST MOMS! EVERYONE HAS A PLACE IN ORGANIZING.”

Soon after Wall of Moms began organizing, Don’t Shoot Portland had agreed to partner with the group, a partnership that Don’t Shoot’s founder Teressa Raiford told Jezebel was meant to help guide Wall of Moms’ organizing efforts and channel them towards efforts led by Black organizations. “The need is always for mutual aid, the need is always to show up,” Raiford said, and she hoped that the members of the group would take part in actions beyond just the nightly protests at the courthouse. In an Instagram post on July 24, Wall of Moms had lauded their work with Don’t Shoot, describing it as a “deepening of a powerful collaboration that will more firmly root us in our collective goals of ending racism, healing historic and ongoing wrongs, and doing the hard but much needed work of healing our society and world from the legacies of colonialism, racism, and white supremacy.” Wall of Moms also announced that they had realized it was “problematic” for the group’s leaders to be composed of primarily white women, and that their leadership would continue to include Barnum (who is Mexican American, though she has described herself as “white appearing”), as well as a group of Black women, including Raiford. It was, the group wrote, an update they were “eager” to share.

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Raiford told Jezebel she was bothered by that post, which had more than a whiff of the self-congratulatory about it. “I didn’t like the fact that the language [said] that white women were giving something to Black women that already had shit,” Raiford said. “Nobody cared,” she said, about who was running the group; the concerns that had been raised during the numerous Zoom calls she had participated in centered around moderation of comments on the group’s Facebook page, which at times took on a tone of white saviorism when questions were raised about whether the moms were shifting the focus from Black Lives Matter to a group of largely white women.

But more troubling in practice, according to Raiford, Barnum disregarded the needs and input of Black women. Raiford pointed to incidents that she said made her and others distrust Barnum’s leadership. Don’t Shoot Portland had heard from Black women that, as they wrote, “they were not protected by WOM leadership” at protests at the Portland federal courthouse. One such incident occurred last Tuesday evening, when Barnum had gotten into an argument with Demetria Hester, a long-time activist who had signed on as the group’s on-the-ground protest coordinator. According to Raiford as well as Rashelle Chase, a Wall of Moms member who had signed up to help with administration of the group’s Facebook page, Barnum then abruptly decided to pull the group out of the protest, leaving Hester alone at the courthouse with no security, a move that was particularly alarming because it was widely known that Hester had in the past been attacked by a man screaming racist slurs, who was eventually convicted of killing two people in a Portland light-rail car. According to Don’t Shoot, similar incidents had happened before, which had “put many on the ground in direct danger.” Chase also told Jezebel that Barnum’s heavy-handedness had already led both the volunteer head of the group’s medic team to quit in protest, as well as the group’s volunteer marketing head.

(When reached, Barnum referred Jezebel to a member of Wall of Moms’s marketing team, who didn’t respond to requests for comment by the time of publication. On Twitter, Barnum wrote last Wednesday, “The court of public opinion is strong. It’s unfortunate Teressa refuses to take any responsibility for what has transpired. It’s okay, though. @WallOfMoms is a protected nonprofit now and those that seek to harm it can be punished by law.”)

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But the final straw was Barnum’s decision to register Wall of Moms as a nonprofit organization, without the agreement of the Black women like Raiford, who were ostensibly part of the group’s leadership team. Barnum’s announcement earlier last week that Wall of Moms was becoming a 501(c)3 alarmed Rairford, who felt like Barnum was exploiting Black people’s pain for her own agenda and gain, and that she had used the Black Lives Matter movement as her own springboard into a sort of celebrity activism, instead of focusing on supporting the ongoing work of existing Black-led organizations. “You don’t need a non-profit for that. You don’t need to discredit Black women for that,” Raiford said. “Why would you make it about yourself when we’re already out here doing the work? Why try to co-opt that?”

Barnum, too, had made several comments that Wall of Moms was not solely about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, which led to confusion among its members and supporters. “If WOM is needed to protect Jews, Muslims, Mexicans... Wall of Moms will protect them,” Barnum wrote on Facebook. On Wednesday morning, Barnum elaborated her stance in a Facebook post. “WOM is a group that supports BLM, but it is not a BLM group. If that is not good enough for you, please feel free to leave this group. And if you currently volunteer your time, feel free to leave your positions,” she wrote. 

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But to many Wall of Moms supporters like Chase, it was clear that Wall of Moms was an organization whose initial impetus was to lift up the Black Lives Matter movement, and in particular Don’t Shoot PDX. “What came through was, we support Don’t Shoot, we are aligned with them, we are centered with them, we elevate them, and their position is our position,” Chase said to Jezebel about the partnership. “If it wasn’t about BLM, why would you want Don’t Shoot to take over?” As Arianna Bradford, a former supporter, wrote on Facebook, “[Barnum] is now saying that the Wall of Moms is NOT about Black lives, but about helping ALL protesters, which hurts my head. Had this been said from the beginning, I could defend it. But she literally rode BLM as a pet cause to garner national attention (using people like me as the face), and then distanced herself once she had her growth.” Bradford added, “I support the 1st amendment, but Black voices are the voices that need elevation right now, and this...this was pretty messed up.”

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All of this has led to turmoil and confusion, which is most apparent in the Wall of Moms Facebook group, now filled with back-and-forth discussions about Barnum. “We’re talking about Bev while kids are being killed in our city? We’re talking about her, when everyone should be talking about how we sued Donald Trump,” Raiford said, referring to a recent lawsuit Don’t Shoot PDX, Wall of Moms, and other activists filed against the Trump administration. To Raiford, it’s easy to read Barnum’s actions as just another example of self-professed leaders co-opting and exploiting Black-led grassroots movements, especially those organized by Black women, for clout. “I’m just tired, because this shit hurts,” Raiford added.

“The most charitable thing to say about it is that she got in over her head,” Chase told Jezebel of Barnum. “I think she just thought she would get some moms together and protest and then it exploded.” But, she added, “Where I start losing my ability to be charitable, is that even after all of this, after the whole explosion Wednesday morning, I told Bev, ‘You’re in over your head, please hand it over to Black women, because we can manage this.’ She was unwilling to do that.” Instead, Chase said, Barnum shared her plans to take Wall of Moms global.

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It appears that Wall of Moms will continue their work in Portland, though their future is uncertain as federal agents begin to leave the city; still, a group of moms showed up at the nightly protest last Wednesday night, and the group wrote on Twitter, “Still here. Still strong.” Other Wall of Moms leaders have sidelined Barnum—according to Chase, Barnum was blocked from accessing the group’s Twitter account and website last week, and as of this past weekend, Barnum is no longer an administrator for the Wall of Moms Facebook group. (Chase described Barnum’s departure as akin to being “fired.”) Don’t Shoot Portland and other Black activists have already created a separate group for Portland moms committed to supporting their work and the broader Black Lives Matter movement, called Moms United For Black Lives.

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But left unresolved, for now, are the broader questions that the breakdown in Wall of Moms has raised, an almost too-perfect, frustrating, entirely predictable microcosm of the questions that continually plague movements for social change—questions of ownership, accountability, privilege, and perhaps most important of all, strategy. As Chase put it, “It’s just kind of textbook.” If it’s easy for people say “listen to Black women” to show off their political bonafides, it’s just as often empty words, discarded just as easily as they are typed into a tweet. But the need to take leadership from Black women goes beyond just a motto. It is, or should be, acknowledged as “a powerful intervention for the left as a whole,” as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently wrote in the New Yorker in a piece about the revolutionary politics of the Combahee River Collective. “In a political moment when futile arguments claimed to pit race against class, and identity politics against mass movements, the C.R.C. showed how to understand the relationship between race, class, and gender through the actual experiences of Black women.”

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As Wall of Moms has grappled with the fallout of the recent days, Chase has been thinking about the women in her own family, and the ways that as she put it, organizing “has always been a matter of our survival.” Her grandmother was a civil rights activist in the ’60s who was part of efforts to desegregate Boston’s public schools. “My mother grew up in the movement, and she raised me in the movement,” Chase said. She added, “That legacy of activism by Black moms, it goes all the way back to when we were enslaved. If we want education, if we want housing, if we want safety, we have to build it ourselves, because white America will not do it for us.”

If the tensions in Wall of Moms brought about in large part by Barnum’s botched leadership underscored her feeling that, as she put it to me, “it feels like it’s always up to Black women to do everything,” Chase continues to see a lot of potential in Wall of Moms. That potential is why she remains a member of the group, despite the fact that “the legacy that [Black women] have of organizing and activism and leading liberation movements is dismissed, overlooked, and ignored.”

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“One of the cool things about Wall of Moms is that there were a lot of white women that got it,” Chase said. “But at the end of the day, it falls to us and it’s exhausting and it’s painful and it makes you angry and depressed. The implosion of it is really unfortunate, because I think the power behind it is when women, moms, and femme-identified people come together, there’s so much power there. There’s so much agency there.” But she wonders—after the clashes with federal agents are over, will the overwhelmingly white women who are part of Wall of Moms continue to participate, especially when the demands are for them to give up some of their material advantages? “It’s not just about the feds, it’s about what’s happening within our police department, our city hall. Gentrification is a huge problem in Portland. Black people are being displaced, and we need housing justice,” Chase said. “The irony is that so many white people in north and northeast Portland have BLM signs, but they’re benefiting from the displacement of Black people.” They need, she said, to “put the same energy into building an equitable and just Portland.”

I asked Raiford what she felt true allyship, or to use her term, co-conspiratorship, looked like.

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“It should look like showing up, and showing up unconditionally,” Raiford said. “Do it respectfully. Connect with people to find out what they need. Listen to Black people.” “Our pain,” she added, “is not an asset.”

Senior reporter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

It’s okay, though. @WallOfMoms is a protected nonprofit now and those that seek to harm it can be punished by law.

That is a really bad response. Threatening to “punish [someone] by law” because you don’t like the fact that they’re criticizing your non-profit? Wow.